By Erin Hallissy
Photography by Toby Burditt
Finding the Words
Brenda Hillman sees metaphors all around her. Like the time she was at Point Reyes feeling panicky about returning to teaching after a sabbatical, and she saw a heron go into a pond and snatch a frog.
"I thought ‘that's the semester, and I'm the frog,' " she recalls with a smile. "I was having this feeling, and then I saw the image, and then I had the words."
Finding the right words comes naturally to Hillman, the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary's. Recently, Poets & Writers magazine named Hillman one of the 50 most inspiring authors in the world, remarking that she "reminds us that the language we use when ordering a sandwich is also the language we use to make art."
"I find it so exhilarating to be alive through language, through poetry, through other people's poetry," Hillman says.
The poet, who teaches in the English department and the MFA in Creative Writing program, was inspired by Keats and the King James Bible as a youth, and later fell in love with the works of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. "In college," she says, "I was radicalized by French poetry, especially dark poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud."
Perhaps not surprisingly, libraries are among her favorite places.
"I have a series of poems about the dust in a library, and some of them come from our own (Saint Mary's) library," she says. "A library seems like a very mysterious and strange place. The fact that you can sit there and channel the thoughts of other people by reading seems to me a completely magical and mystical idea."
Hillman has plenty of books of her own in libraries, including Fortress, Death Tractates, Bright Existence and Loose Sugar. She has also edited Emily Dickinson Poems.
Hillman has most recently been channeling her thoughts about the four classic Greek elements into volumes of poetry. Hillman was honored in April for the third in the series, Practical Water, which was named to the Los Angeles Times 2009 list of book prizes.
She is now working on her fourth and final, on fire. The poet says it's been interesting for her to think about the world in different ways through the years that she's worked on the volumes.
"It's more like inviting the elements to join me," she says.
Hillman also enjoys helping her students channel their thoughts through writing poetry, which she says isn't hard because "as soon as they start, they dig it."
"Our main work is to make consciousness of our lives and to stay awake," she says. "In poetry, you can find an absolutely efficient way for your soul to make the world. When you find a piece of reality that knocks your socks off, there's nothing like it."
Students are open to this kind of exploration as well, she says, even those who may believe that poetry is impractical.
"What could be more practical than the survival of your inner life?" she asks. "I find it not hard at all to get them to fall in love with this. Often after just one semester they say ‘I can do this because it's inside of me.' "
That's not to say that it's always easy for Hillman to help them enjoy other people's poetry, which they can sometimes find mysterious and abstract.
"They think ‘there is a code, and if I don't crack it I'm stupid,' " she notes.
Along with exploring their thoughts and feelings, Hillman also encourages students to get involved in an issue they care about. For her, the issue is peace. She holds weekly peace vigils at Saint Mary's during the school year, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Jan Term she went with students for a nonviolent "Peas for Peace" demonstration at an Oakland Bart station, handing out pea seedlings to passersby.
"I'm a little passionate on the subject," she says, describing herself as a Christian pacifist who is in favor of nonviolent protests. "I have felt that people have been sitting on their hands about so many things."